In the 1950s, Chinese linguists began doing something radical: constructing alphabets. Because Chinese is a tonal language with a logographic script (visual symbols making up words), its characters do not represent phonemes (or speech sounds) directly. But under Mao Zedong’s directives, linguists created more than two thousand proposed alphabets. According to Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, some suggested Latin letters and others wanted Cyrillic. Some combined Latin with Chinese radicals. A few even incorporated numbers.
The alphabet that stuck used the Latin system and is known as Pinyin. Modernisers hoped that it would supplant China’s millennia-old pictographic characters but that was a step too far, even for Mao. Instead Pinyin was used for educational purposes, helping to match how words sound with written Mandarin. Since its adoption, illiteracy in China has dropped from 80% to less than 10%.
Surprisingly, the man who created the system isn’t very well known known. Zhou Youguang celebrated his 108th birthday earlier this month, says Science Times, but few people realise that he’s the “father of Pinyin”.
So why isn’t he more celebrated? Partly it’s because his political views don’t seem to be too closely aligned with the Party’s. For example, in a 2012 interview with the New York Times, he declared that democracy is “the natural form of a modern society”. He rejects the argument that China isn’t suited to democracy too. “You can have democracy no matter what level of development,” he said.
Some of Zhou’s outlook was shaped by a stint working at a bank in New York early in life (“It was at No 1 Wall Street – the centre of imperialism,” he told the BBC two years ago). He returned to China in 1949 but later suffered through the Cultural Revolution. Because of his background in economics (his major at college), he was labelled as a class enemy and sent to the countryside for re-education. But on his return, he rejoined the government to work on Pinyin (which means “to piece together sounds”) and make sure it was adopted as a new standard.
“[Pinyin] is very simple but had a significant purpose. First, it denotes the sound of Chinese characters,” Zhou told reporters in 2008. “Second, it has helped [students] to learn Putonghua, the national standard language. Before, I met a Cantonese and a Hokkien in foreign countries and couldn’t communicate. I had to speak English to them. Without an alphabet you had to learn mouth to mouth, ear to ear. It’s a bridge to speech between Chinese people.”
Since then Zhou has published more than 40 books (he has an official weibo page although he seldom uses it) and stays up-to-date with current affairs, says Science Times.
When asked about his longevity, Zhou replies: “There’s a Chinese saying that goes, live till 100 years old. That suggests 100 years should be the limit of a man’s life… I think God made a mistake, and he forgot about me.”
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